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In 1916 an outrage in Dublin touched the Irish in Boston
They are not ‘hanging men and women for the wearing of the green’ these days,” an American newspaper commented on May 13, 1916, of events recently transpired in Dublin; “they are shooting them.” That terse opinion was expressed in the pages of the Sacred Heart Review, published weekly in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but with a readership, largely Irish Catholic, throughout the United States. More than a dozen Irish rebels had been executed by British firing squads for their participation in the April 24–29 Easter Rising, a move to compel independence by seizing government and other major buildings in the city. They had, the paper went on, “paid the extreme penalty of their attempt to prove that Ireland is still a nation.” The Review did not condone what the plotters had done—their resort to open conflict against constituted authority was unsupportable. But the men’s motives, the paper suggested, at least were good ones.
That mixture—of censure and respect—encapsulated the reaction of many in the large Irish and Irish-American population of the greater Boston area. By the opening decades of the 20th century, Boston had become one of the most Irish cities in the country. Its Irish continued to follow events in their homeland as they made new lives for themselves in America. But even among those who felt most strongly that their beloved island was (as the paper said) a nation, there was little apparent desire to go to Ireland to participate in the process of political change. To understand that ambivalence, one must look to the Irish experience in Boston.
In 1821, about 2,200 immigrants came through the port of Boston, a statistically insignificant number in comparison with the city’s nearly 45,000 inhabitants. Twenty-five years later, annual arrivals had increased 50-fold, to nearly 115,000 (in 1846). About half the immigrants every year came from Ireland, and these were for the most part among the poorest of the poor. They crowded into the city’s oldest and most densely packed neighborhoods and, as so often happens, got blamed for being poor. Crime, disease, and other social ills seemed to follow them, and native Bostonians were quick to lament the changes to the city. “For a long time,” as historian Oscar Handlin memorably wrote, the Irish in Boston “were fated to remain a massive lump in the community, undigested, undigestible.” That distinction would have disadvantages, to be sure, but also benefits. The Irish would experience discrimination in the workplace and in society; they would also coalesce as a community and gain political clout.
For one thing, numbers were on the side of the Irish, and toward the end of the 19th century they were approaching a majority, in the Boston population at large and among the electorate. By the 1880s, Irish-American voters were joining forces with reform-minded Yankees, and in 1884 they together elected Hugh O’Brien, the city’s first Irish and Catholic mayor (this in a place that in 1647 had enacted a law that “no Jesuit or ecclesiastical person ordained by the authority of the pope shall henceforth come within our jurisdiction”). O’Brien had been born in County Fermanagh, immigrated as a child, and was the successful publisher of a commercial newspaper. Once in office, he devoted himself to development of the city’s parks and libraries. He was eventually followed, in 1901, by the equally respectable Patrick Collins. Originally from Cork, Collins had already had a career in the state legislature, the U.S. Congress, and the diplomatic service. Both Collins and O’Brien appeared to demonstrate that through broad, multiethnic coalitions they could govern without the excesses of patronage and corruption that were coming to characterize the Irish political machines in New York and Chicago, where entrenched ethnic and religious us-versus-them rivalries prevailed.
But Collins died unexpectedly in office in 1905, and his death marked the end of one era and the opening of another. Boston’s Irish population had continued to grow and no longer needed to make common cause with other groups to win and retain political power. The Irish had numbers sufficient to achieve control on their own. The decisive turning point was the mayoral election of 1910, which pitted James Jackson Storrow, the descendent of several long-tailed Yankee families, against John Francis Fitzgerald, the American-born son of immigrants from Wexford, whose sweet singing voice had earned him the nickname “Honey Fitz.”
Fitzgerald, who had been a student at Boston College for one year (1878–79), campaigned as a Progressive of the Teddy Roosevelt variety. But in victory he governed as the ward boss he truly was, larding the city payroll with supporters and directing contracts to those who would show their appreciation, so to speak. This set the pattern for other politicos, most notably the flamboyant James Michael Curley, who would eventually serve four terms as mayor, one term in Congress, one term as governor of Massachusetts, and two terms in jail, over a career that lasted until 1950, or more than 50 years. Curley took particular delight in tweaking the supposed “betters” of immigrant families such as his own, and the voters rewarded him for it. To refer, as some did, to the older Yankee clans as members of the “codfish aristocracy” was, he is supposed to have said, an insult to the fish.
As wielded by such figures, Irish political power in Boston through the remainder of the 20th century was considerable, but also different from that in other American cities. For all their dominance, the Boston Irish never succeeded in organizing and maintaining a central political machine comparable to, say, Tammany Hall in New York. Under the reign of Tammany, a small inner core of political leaders agreed on candidates, discouraged others from running, and marshaled the resources for victory. Boston had nothing like this. Local Irish politics was a fragmented and even feudal affair, with many small pockets of power and lots of competing minor barons, each one supreme in his own ward but of little consequence in somebody else’s.
Together, Fitzgerald and Curley battled the Yankees, who regularly controlled the legislature and the governor’s office, but the two contemporaries were just as likely to go after each other in the city. Curley forced Fitzgerald to withdraw his candidacy for reelection as mayor in 1913, for example, by threatening to expose his dalliance with a young woman who had the evocative name of Elizabeth “Toodles” Ryan. And there were always other barons who had to be appeased, neutralized, or drawn into temporary alliances: in East Boston, Patrick J. Kennedy (the other grandfather, along with Honey Fitz, of President John Kennedy); in the South End, James “Smiling Jim” Donovan; Joseph Corbett in Charlestown; Patrick J. (“Pea Jacket”) Maguire in Roxbury; and Martin Lomasney in the West End, a man so inscrutably powerful that he earned the nickname “The Mahatma.” True, every Boston mayor from 1929 until 1993 would be Irish-American, but their climbs to the top of the slippery pole would be difficult, the hold on power usually threatened by one of their own.
The Irish also dominated the Catholic Church in Boston. But if Boston was different from other places in its politics, so was the Church in Boston also distinctive.
Every bishop of the city from 1846 until 1970 was an Irish-American, and the ranks of clergy and sisters were weighted heavily in the same way. There were, of course, always immigrants from places other than Ireland—members of what the official diocesan historians in the 1940s called “the newer Catholic races,” by which they meant Italians, Eastern Europeans, and others. But their presence was dwarfed by the Irish. The city supported only a single German parish, for example, established in the 1830s. Thought was given to opening a second one in the 1890s, but Church leaders determined that there were not enough German Catholics in the city to make it viable.
The preponderance of Irish Catholics had the effect of muting tension among the various Catholic ethnic groups. When large numbers of Catholics from one of those “newer races” moved into a previously all-Irish neighborhood and began to press for a parish of their own, the local Irish pastor generally supported the idea. Just before the First World War, for instance, when Polish families began moving into the West End neighborhood, the archbishop asked their Irish pastor to investigate whether there were enough of them to justify creation of a parish specifically for Poles. (The issue in such cases was usually language. The Mass and the sacraments were in Latin, a language uniformly foreign to everybody, but non-English-speaking parishioners wanted sermons, schools, and the opportunity to go to confession in their mother tongue.) This pastor, whose name was McLeod, quickly concluded that the Polish community was indeed big enough, and a new church was opened for them in short order. In other Catholic centers in the United States, ethnic groups were more evenly balanced, and the struggles for influence and authority were more contentious because the outcome was in doubt. Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, and other cities saw varying degrees of tension, especially between Irish and Germans. Such tension was largely absent in Boston, because the Irish were so dominant.
Presiding over Boston Catholicism for most of the first half of the 20th century was William Henry O’Connell, a churchman whose personality can well be described as militant and triumphant. Born in America to parents who had emigrated from Cavan along with his older brothers and sisters, O’Connell entered the priesthood and rose quickly through the ranks from parish priest to seminary rector to bishop of Portland, Maine, to archbishop of Boston, appointed to that position in 1907. Four years later, Pope Pius X named him a cardinal, the first Bostonian and the third American to receive that distinction; he would serve until his death in 1944. O’Connell dominated Boston Catholicism, transforming the office of archbishop into a highly visible public position. He was recognized everywhere, not merely as the head of a particular denomination, but as a leader with the responsibility to define and uphold civic values. What he had to say on any subject was front-page news simply because he was the one who said it. When he condemned morally questionable movies or stage productions, they closed. When he commented on matters before the city council or legislature, his influence was felt immediately. (In the halls of the State House, his nickname was “Number One.”) A late example of his influence took place in May 1935, when he was 76. The Massachusetts legislature was due to vote on a bill, sponsored by then-governor Curley, to establish a state lottery. It seemed destined for easy passage, until O’Connell’s denunciation of the measure—as promoting gambling—was carried in the morning newspapers on May 21, a Monday. The bill went down to a crushing defeat on Tuesday.
For Boston’s Irish, O’Connell was a particularly significant figure—his family background was so similar to theirs. They might never consort with kings and presidents, but when he did some of the glory reflected on them. If he could rise from poverty to prominence and leadership, so perhaps might they, or their children. The emerging cohort of Irish political leaders in the early 20th century underlined the same point, and together they signaled that Boston was a very different place from what it had been. O’Connell himself provided the aphorism that succinctly summarized the change. Celebrating in 1908 the centennial of the establishment of the diocese, he delivered a long sermon reviewing the progress of Catholics, Irish and otherwise, in the place that had once enacted an anti-priest law. His summation could not have been clearer. “The Puritan has passed,” he said, “the Catholic remains. The city where a century ago he came unwanted he has made his own.” A new era had indeed dawned—in Church, state, and society—and it provided the context for Irish Boston’s response to the events of 1916 in Dublin.
Boston had long had its share of supporters of Irish nationalism. In the middle of the 19th century, some had been drawn to the Fenian movement, an international organization (with an American branch) that raised money and manpower for the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. But doubtless preoccupied by the American Civil War’s aftermath and by political struggles close to home, Irish Bostonians channeled their nationalist impulses in other directions, particularly following the Fenians’ abortive military escapades of the 1860s (when the group attempted several times to attack British forts in Canada). The Land League, committed to abolishing British ‘landlordism’ and redistributing property to the native Irish, attracted some local support, and it was not insignificant. Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish nationalist member of Britain’s House of Commons, visited Boston in January 1880 during an American fundraising tour and came away with about $1,600 in pledges, a sum comparable to roughly $40,000 today.
The most famous nationalist in Boston in the closing decades of the century was John Boyle O’Reilly (1844–90). Expelled from Ireland for Fenian recruiting activities, and transported to prison in Australia, O’Reilly escaped in 1867 and made his daring way to America, eventually landing in Boston. He found work as a reporter for the Pilot (a newspaper that began publication in 1829 as the Jesuit and was later renamed for a nationalist-leaning paper in Dublin). In 1873, O’Reilly was made editor and three years later he became co-owner, together with Archbishop John Williams. O’Reilly’s literary skills attracted wide notice, not just among the Irish readers of the paper but also among sympathetic Yankee elites. He was invited to join some of their most exclusive social clubs and, even more tellingly, he was singled out for a prominent role in a quintessentially American pageant. A new stone canopy had been erected over Plymouth Rock, the imagined spot of the Pilgrims’ first landing in 1620, and O’Reilly was chosen to be one of the principal speakers at its dedication in the summer of 1890. Introduced by the presiding Yankee governor of Massachusetts as “a genuine New England Pilgrim, born not on the mainland but on a small island out at sea,” O’Reilly delivered an epic poem he’d composed, of almost three hundred lines (“The Pilgrim Fathers”), for the occasion.
O’Reilly had an ability to appeal to the Yankees as well as the Irish. In a way, he was a cultural analog to the alliance-building politicians of his generation, Hugh O’Brien and Patrick Collins. He never completely abandoned his Irish nationalist sentiments, but they were muted and decreased in intensity with time. He was nominally a member of an American branch of the Fenian Brotherhood, and he also joined the secretive Clan na Gael, which called for immediate independence for Ireland (to be achieved by violence if necessary), though he seems not to have taken an active role. Under his leadership the Pilot continued to be a journal for Irish Americans everywhere, regularly denouncing the latest British injustice. But O’Reilly increasingly turned his political energies toward the concerns of his new country. He editorialized in favor of all manner of domestic social reforms: child welfare, prison reform, and especially the rights of African-Americans, then in the process of losing many of the freedoms they had won at Emancipation. He also devoted more of his energies to purely literary pursuits, publishing his only novel, Moondyne (its hero escapes from an Australian penal colony), in 1878, together with essays on a host of topics, including a famous one on the virtues of boxing.
In the first two decades of the new century, many of Boston’s Irish followed a trajectory similar to O’Reilly’s (if less spectacular). They did not forget about Ireland, and they maintained a generalized belief that it should be freed from English rule. They followed the Home Rule debates in the British Parliament immediately before the outbreak of the First World War, though with only slightly more passion than they gave to other foreign news. The Sacred Heart Review, for example, dutifully chronicled the efforts of Irish politician John Redmond to secure the limited self-governance bill in Parliament in 1912 and expressed obvious but restrained pleasure when it passed (although it was quickly suspended for the duration of World War I). But the lives of most of Boston’s Irish by then revolved around a dense network of social organizations they’d built up over decades on this side of the Atlantic. There were dozens of temperance groups, many of them inspired by the Irish apostle of abstinence, Theobald Mathew (1790–1856). There were the county associations, as well: a County Wexford Club, for example, a Tipperary Men’s Association, and the Knights and Ladies of Saint Brendan (for people from Kerry). Even some formerly radical groups had toned themselves down. By the end of the 19th century the Ancient Order of Hibernians, once denounced by several American bishops for its supposed commitment to violent revolution, was an almost entirely social organization in Boston, attracting members (about 8,000 in the city in 1900) mostly because it offered low-cost life insurance.
This combination of attention and inattention to Ireland meant news of the Rising during Easter Week came largely as a surprise to Boston’s Irish-Americans. Word of the revolt first arrived on Wednesday, April 26, two days after the events on what was then called Sackville Street (it’s now O’Connell Street, for Daniel O’Connell, an Irish leader prominent in the early 1800s). Owing to wartime news restrictions, details were “meagre,” reported the Boston Globe—which had the largest circulation of the city’s dozen daily newspapers—but a “serious revolt” appeared well underway. That week, the Friends of Irish Freedom held a “largely attended” gathering at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, with an impressive list of speakers, including the New York fire-breather Judge Daniel Cohalan, a veteran of many Irish causes in the United States.
The scarcity of information spawned all manner of lurid rumors, and in keeping with the journalistic conventions of the day, the Boston newspapers were not reluctant to spread these: The rebels had seized a hospital and held the patients hostage; snipers were randomly picking off children, wounding two who had been standing in a bread line; “promiscuous firing” accompanied the seizure of “saloons”; secretive forces in America and elsewhere were behind the whole business. Grainy photographs of Dublin were published, with hand-drawn arrows pointing to the Post Office and other buildings where the action was concentrated. By the end of the week, the rebellion was over, and nearly as quickly the trials and executions of the ringleaders began. The Globe, which prided itself at the time on having no editorial opinions whatsoever, could only comment reservedly: “Even the man who wrote the tuneful ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ didn’t foresee all the trouble that could occur in and around that city.”
It was the quick execution of Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and the other organizers between May 3 and May 12 that aroused the anger of the Irish in and around Boston. In mid-May, 5,000 people (described by the Globe as “American citizens of Boston of Irish and other bloods”) jammed the Tremont Temple, one of the largest auditoriums in the city; another 4,000 had to be turned away, and they reassembled at the nearby bandstand on the Boston Common. Mayor Curley, never one to pass up an opportunity to appear before a large crowd, fervently endorsed Irish independence, while other speakers encouraged “whole-hearted” applause for Germany, Britain’s enemy in the war that was raging on the continent. There were other echoes of the war, in which the United States was not yet a participant. Much was made, for instance, of England’s defense of the rights of smaller nations as justification for joining the conflict, a line of argument that now rang false. “Why defend Belgium,” a resolution of the County Wexford Club of Charleston read, “and murder Irishmen?” In Worcester, the state’s second largest city, a similar meeting called on England to grant Ireland its independence “not 50 years hence, not 25 years hence, not 10 years hence but now.” Rallies in Springfield, New Bedford, and other Massachusetts cities sounded the same themes (there seemed to be no calls for an official U.S. response). Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra played a benefit concert for the families of those who died in the Rising.
In their commentary, Boston’s Irish papers often reprinted the views of editors around the country. In one issue at the end of May, the Pilot ran excerpts from 37 newspapers in the United States and Canada, all denouncing British “justice.” The Sacred Heart Review repeated its insistence that armed rebellion was never justified, but it nonetheless expressed admiration for what the “so-called rebels” had done. And it quoted at length the sentiments of a Catholic newspaper in Portland, Oregon, which opined: “We may differ with them in regard to the policy to be followed; we may think them unwise; we may feel that their movement was inexpedient, but we must allow that their actions were inspired by a deep and unselfish love of Ireland.” The Pilot, by then no longer an independently owned journal but the official organ of the archdiocese of Boston, agreed. Cardinal O’Connell’s chief public mouthpiece declared the uprising “deplorable” and wrote that “to many it may seem inexplicable and even insane.” The paper added, however, that “the brutal rank injustice of the slaughter of the leaders” deserved only condemnation. “Shame on England,” read the headline over the Pilot‘s editorial on May 27, in a rare display of overt partisanship. At the same time, both papers were quick to draw parallels between the Irish rebels and revolutionaries of an earlier century. “Surely,” the Pilot said, the leaders of the Dublin rising were “blood-brothers with the heroes of early American history”—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and those who fought and died at the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. Such references had particular resonance in and around Boston. Support for the cause of Irish independence and revulsion at the harsh British response to the Rising burned hot in Boston in the immediate aftermath, but soon cooled. A presidential campaign was underway, with Woodrow Wilson, a candidate for reelection, promising to keep the United States out of the European war. Wilson would carry the vote in heavily Irish and Democratic Boston, though the state’s electoral votes would go to his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes. In Massachusetts, the redoubtable Henry Cabot Lodge was a candidate for reelection to one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats. This was the first election in which senators were chosen by popular vote, not by the state legislature, and Lodge won. A leading Irish politico, David Ignatius Walsh, was not on the ballot that year. Walsh was far more respectable than Fitzgerald or Curley, and he had become a hero to his constituents when he was elected the state’s first Irish Catholic governor two years before. He longed to serve in the Senate, but knowing he could not defeat Lodge, he sat out a cycle, and was finally elected in 1918; he would go on to serve (with only minor interruption) until 1947.
Boston’s Irish did turn out in 1919, when Éamon de Valera, who had escaped execution for his role in the Rising, visited the city. “Dev,” as he came to be called, was described by the Globe as “slender, boyish appearing sometimes . . . , his face that of a scholar.” He attended Mass in Roxbury’s Mission Church—Fr. Thomas Wheelwright, his half-brother and a member of the Redemptorist religious order, presided—and he spoke to a packed and cheering crowd at Fenway Park, before moving on to other cities. De Valera, who would serve terms as prime minister and president of the Republic of Ireland intermittently from the 1930s to 1960s, was on a U.S. fundraising tour, lasting a year and a half and eventually collecting $6 million to support ongoing resistance to British rule.
This was an era of transition for Boston’s Irish. They had, as Cardinal O’Connell said, “remained,” and they were making the city their own. They kept alive an instinctive sympathy for Ireland, but it was increasingly sympathy at a distance. They were busy at building an American Irish identity—”inventing Irish America,” in historian Timothy Meagher’s words. Politically, religiously, socially, they were coming into their own.
James M. O’Toole holds the Clough Millennium Chair in History at Boston College and is the author most recently of The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (2008). His essay is drawn and adapted from a paper he delivered on March 19 at a conference sponsored by the University’s Center for Irish Studies. The title of the three-day meeting was “The Easter Rising 1916: ‘A Terrible Beauty Is Born’.”
“Due to the enthusiastic response to this event, no further registrations will be accepted.” This notice appears several times on the Irish Studies calendar of concerts, lectures, and conferences marking the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule. It appended notice of a March 22 performance by Michael Tubridy, former flutist with the Chieftains; a return concert featuring fiddler Séamus Connolly (former University artist-in-residence) on March 28; and a Saturday conference on April 9, “James Joyce and the Easter Rising.” The conference from which James O’Toole’s preceding essay was excerpted—titled “The Easter Rising 1916: ‘A Terrible Beauty is Born’”—drew some 250 to McGuinn 121 on a Friday evening and 70 or so well-versed attendees, who gathered around the coffee urns before 9:00 a.m. on Saturday (9:30 on Sunday), to the lower level of Devlin Hall. A taste of the topics that brought them out:
Friday Evening, March 18
1916: New Perspectives, Old Rows
Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern history at University College Dublin and author of A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913–23 (2015)
James Joyce and 1916
Colm Tóibín, novelist, author of the Man Booker–shortlisted The Master (2004) and The Testament of Mary (2012), as well as Brooklyn (2009) and Nora Webster (2014)
Saturday, March 19
Irish Unionists and the 1916 Rising
Alvin Jackson, the Sir Richard Lodge Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh and a former Burns Visiting Scholar at Boston College; editor of the Oxford Handbook to Modern Irish History (2014)
Broadcasting 1916: Denis Johnston and the BBC
Emily Bloom, MA’06, visiting assistant professor at Columbia University and author of The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931–68 (forthcoming)
Lemass, Legacy, and the Irish Revolution
Robert Savage, professor of the practice of history at Boston College and author of The BBC’s Irish Troubles: Television, Conflict, and Northern Ireland (2015)
Not Hanging but Shooting: The Irish in Boston and the Easter Rising
James M. O’Toole, the Clough Millenium Professor of History at Boston College and author of The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (2008)
Curators of Memory: Women and the Easter Rising
Roisín Higgins, senior lecturer in history at Teesside University, England, and author of Transforming 1916: Meaning, Memory, and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising (2012)
Teaching 1916, an Interdisciplinary Approach
Sheila Gallagher, associate professor of fine arts, Boston College; Richard Kearney, holder of the Charles B. Seelig Chair of Philosophy, Boston College; and Robert Savage, professor of the practice of history, Boston College
Sunday, March 20
How to Stage a Revolution: The Abbey Theatre’s 1916 Rebels
Fearghal McGarry, reader in history at Queen’s University, Belfast, and author of The Abbey Rebels of 1916: A Lost Revolution (2015)
An Intimate History of 1916: Grief and Loss in the Republican Aristocracy
Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, lecturer in modern history, Sheffield University, England, and author of Seán MacBride: A Republican Life (2011)
Pearse, Cúchalainn, and 1916
Elaine Sisson, senior lecturer in the department of design and visual arts at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, Dublin, and author of Pearse’s Patriots: The Cult of Boyhood at St. Enda’s (2004)
Read more by James O’Toole